A Conversation on Surveillance

With Conceptual Artist Julia Scher
And Civil Liberties Activist Chip Berlet

Original Dateline: May 30, 1990 (Revised 8/22/91)
Political Research Associates

Julia Scher was one of just three nationally-known artists chosen to open the dramatic new Wexner Art Museum in Ohio. A conceptual artist, Scher uses surveillance cameras and exotic security equipment to capture and record images of people attending art galleries, and then rearranges the images so that time, place and identities are scrambled. As people view the resulting images on TV monitors, Scher hopes they will see surveillance with new eyes, come to understand the power of surveillance, and gain strength to confront the increasing erosions of privacy in our society.

Chip Berlet, a paralegal investigator, works as an analyst at Political Research Associates. He has written extensively about First Amendment issues and right-wing groups, and has worked on several legal teams litigating against surveillance and disruption by government agencies including the FBI, CIA, military intelligence, local police intelligence units, and right-wing spy networks. Berlet is a founding co-editor of Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report.

Berlet: Why make people confront surveillance?

Scher: Primarily my work is creating areas that are under surveillance and then marking the targeted areas so that a person feels that a particular behavior might be suspect. In a design of any surveillance system, whether it be specific to small group or to a general mass population, the idea is to make people alter their behavior because of the implied threat that something will happen to them if they act outside of certain social limits. Self-limiting practices are basically encouraged by surveillance systems. There are different ways that areas or spaces under surveillance are marked or not marked depending on the strategy involved. In public settings there is commonly an announcement that surveillance is in force. For instance there may be little signs saying "This area is under surveillance." A political group may come to believe that there is surveillance happening, and in effect they mark their own space and act accordingly.

Berlet: How do you mark a surveillance area as an artist?

Scher: As an artist I mark all the areas which are under surveillance, I generally put up signage. I also use audio or sound to mark a surveillance area so that a beep, a buzzer, an alarm or squawk or person will allow you to know you have entered an area under surveillance. But unlike in a normal surveillance strategy where an area is typically unmarked or it is marked in order to affect fear, panic or in order to solicit a specific behavior out of you, I mark an area and then allow people to see the actual equipment, wires, and other mechanisms involved to demystify the act of surveillance.

Berlet: The assumption here is that surveillance itself has at least two purposes, one is to catch and record criminality or behavior that is not wanted. The other is to prevent that behavior from happening through a form of intimidation.

Scher: Exactly. Both on the physical level--such as the creation of a surveillance area or a prison, and also on the abstract level--intellectual or emotional. The abstract level can include the fear of data-oriented surveillance: that is files that are in essence monitoring you, or that you have been assigned a number, or your name is being put into a file. On both those levels, the physical and the abstract, that act, that watching, that file, has a concrete effect. What will happen is that you will internalize a need to restrain yourself or to act in a way that you imagine would be judicious given the situation. For example to not be a thief or not create a criminal act, or not make a disturbance, or not speak out.

Berlet: In terms of political organizing and activity, do you think that the fear someone might have that they are under surveillance or that someone is watching them, or that there is a file being kept on them, does this fear limit freedom? Do persons begin to self-limit themselves? How would they do that? By not talking about their fears, or talking about it and becoming afraid as an individual or as a group. With something that is so often not on the table but so often hidden, what happens?

Scher: In the case of a group such as Greenpeace working to create a forum for their agenda and elicit a response from the public, the goal of Greenpeace is to actively engage the repressive forces that are out there, and engage the public with the response that Greenpeace can be a vehicle for change. Non-involved people noting the process of Greenpeace begin to feel able to make change, the public is then enabled to engage the issue as well. Greenpeace gives strength to those people who don't know enough, or are not initiated as activists but still are very aware of the real environmental and humanitarian needs of the world, which is to save itself. For a group like Greenpeace the goal of surveillance would be to have each member or potential member of Greenpeace be self-limiting and self-censoring so at the end of the day, if someone was watching, the report that would be filed would say that no activity took place, no meeting was held, and no one did anything. The ultimate goal is that they would stop be active. In the case of Act-Up, which I know personally, when meetings are under surveillance or infiltrated, it is only the group force which allows them to not act in a self-limiting basis, however each of the attendees have internalized the fear and paranoia, and continually are walking around with the feeling that they must resist these mechanisms. They have taken on the experience of an actual mechanism of surveillance or infiltration so that even if the mechanism doesn't exist...they act as if it does.

Berlet: So that even if surveillance and infiltration doesn't exist, they act as if they were being infiltrated or are under surveillance?

Scher: Exactly, so that the technique, process and methodology of surveillance itself is very potent, and therefore to defeat that experience of surveillance is extremely difficult. After all, how do you shake off a force that has no form, that you can actually battle

Berlet: You can't confront it because it is a little lens on the wall, or you may not even know it is there at all.

Scher: Well, I know you teach people how to confront it. You do it when you photograph covert agents at demonstrations by re-picturing it, and altering it and giving it a humorous theater for that perception. By pulling that image of surveillance into another arena and globalizing it--seeing it as the specter that it is--your motion will be to engage in that process, demystify it, and not pull back and retreat into self-censoring activities.

Berlet: Regarding your installation at the Wexner Museum. It's a sparse modern building that now is filled with art, but when you opened it with two other artists it was primarily a building that functioned as a space where surveillance was already part of the structural design and architectural design. What did you do and what were you trying to accomplish with that installation?

Scher: I installed close circuit television, reco-robos (which are passive infrared heat detectors) and voice annunciator chips to create a system that would extend the regular surveillance that they had already installed on the building to create areas in which you not only looked at the building but the building looked back at you. To create an experience of watchfulness on many different levels. Not only approaching issues of what was watchfulness, but talking about the construct of environments which not only are engaged by you participating in them, they participate back and suck information off and spill it somewhere else. The closed circuit of surveillance existed prior to my being there and I actually plugged in to their real surveillance system. It was a system by which I plugged into a regular security system, used their camera feeds. We were able to make available feeds from their over twenty camera positions, and added them to the artist-added camera positions, which of course are much better than their existing positions. The artist-added camera positions made it possible for people to experience themselves as an object/subject of surveillance but also as a participant/subject. As you walked through the building you could see yourself at various locations throughout the site and actually follow yourself and other people so that there was an element of tracking as well as watching.

As you walked through the building you would find yourself up on monitors through a series of computers and time-lapse tape decks, you could see yourself from many parts of the building as you walked through the building. The standards for the tracking were very clear, you were being recorded and you were being followed, yet you could also follow and watch yourself and experience yourself from many different angles at almost the same time.

Berlet: Do you think this demystifies the process for people? Someone might argue that an installation like that might just create in people a sense of fear and loathing and paranoia. In that case, experiencing your art form would simply make them even more paranoid.

Scher: Actually that does happen a lot, but it also is the case that some people experience it as normal and don't bat an eye, and others totally don't see the piece at all. So it is an interesting set of responses. I'm very interested in using the equipment, the mechanisms of policing and patrolling of institutional spaces, and doubling them back on that space in order to highlight the repressive concerns that come up with these systems, and by the regular normal uses of these systems. By experiencing this closed-circuit in this temporary installation on this limited basis I hope that people can bring that experience to the culture at large. So that they go to a bank machine and they take out money they realize that they are being watched and they are being recorded and that what does this then mean to them. It's significant that they can experience this in a non-threatening way. The piece isn't really threatening, although it may engender paranoia, since this experience on a limited basis can be applied to other situations.

Berlet: The hope then is that people would become more aware of surveillance and then perhaps become more aware to the recourses available to challenge the kind of pervasive experience of surveillance and monitoring that goes on. In Europe, for instance, people have access to both public and private data records and certain record and data keeping practices are forbidden. The rights of the individual in terms of privacy and surveillance are given much higher priority in Europe than in the U.S. Through your art you are telling people that they can take back control.

Scher: Absolutely. The possibility that their identity is imperiled by these systems is enormous. That was the case at the Wexner Center. When you did see yourself up on the monitors, a huge full-blown black and white image of yourself with the time and date generated over your head, a graphic, a statement, would come up over your face which had nothing to do with you, but would identify you incorrectly. For example, your picture would come up, and you are a white man, and it would say over your face, "You are a girl who has been caught not looking just right." So it would misidentify you, and it was a simple computer program generated with an Amiga computer. So everyone was misidentified and attributed to a characteristic not of their own making. This fallibility issue is something that I use to bring up the idea and the prominence of this imperiled identification and the loss that is associated with that.

There is a loss of freedom associated with not being able to have control over your own image, your own visual reproduction, your own sense of self. In my installations I try to show that it is not only self image which is being hurt or repressed, but also what is at risk is history itself. We are talking about history which is a construct as we know. In a lot of artwork and literature, history is what you make of it. But also vision, your spatial perception, and time are also at risk. So by using the body as an identity from which to take off from seeing what is hurt, I hope to imply that these other issues--vision, history, time--are also effected dynamically.

Berlet: The technology itself is increasing in terms of applications--more and more people are using more exotic technologies for surveillance. Twenty years ago you couldn't afford to install a passive infrared-red detector in a home. Now you can buy them at Radio Shack...

Scher: ...for about sixty bucks...

Berlet: Right, so you can now turn your home into something that in the 1960's would have been out of a science fiction film.

Scher: Yes, and remember that security was the number one growth industry last year, this includes guards, correctional institutions, the whole doo-wop. It is also true that this escalation has been promoted by the industry itself. The security industry is using the perceived need for increased fortification as necessary simply to live, and to create the dynamic of a healthful, happy, safe environment. It is a promotional critique based on the inability of mass culture to deal with the problems of society such as crime, drugs, unemployment, homelessness, and the inability of the criminal justice system to house inmates. The general growth of repressive mediums follows along with the cultural destruction of values and morality and the ability of communities to take care of themselves, and the ability of the police force to be taken seriously--and the police force is not taken seriously...

Berlet: Because the police are overwhelmed?

Scher: ...well they certainly aren't in control here in New York, and everyone knows this.

Berlet: The people who contract with private security firms on an industrial level to monitor dissenting voices in the animal rights or environmental movement are assuming that the constituted law enforcement can't cope with their needs for security, so they contract with a private firm to do that. This then creates another layer with law enforcement being paralleled by private security...

Scher: ...Oh, the future is totally private security. Public law enforcement is seen as outmoded. The money is going to private security, and right now it is really an unregulated industry. You have municipal and federal law enforcement totally regulated, and watchdog organizations up the ass, yet you have a whole open field of unconquered territory in terms of privitization of control mechanisms. We will obviously see more of this. In every city you have police cars, which are really mobile detention centers--jails on wheels--and they have the capacity for monitoring as well. So that you could have a political meeting that could be monitored from a car, and think of what a great private business this could be. You could monitor several meetings a night, you don't have to set up physical bugs, you just drive your mobile unit around and have someone infiltrate meetings with a tiny transmitter with the signal being recorded in the mobile unit, and spend the night moving from site to site. In the past, transit has been constructed as power, any time you have a car, a train, anytime that you have these interstices of egress, this has been traditionally constructed as a form of male power. So too, the gaze--watching--this is being used in very interesting and insidious ways. Say you have 100,000 mobile detention centers in the form of police cars across the United States, whatever the figure is, think of a private industry in which you not only could detain and incarcerate individuals, but one that is watching back and selling the information to others. There is a tremendous growth possibility here. I'm very interested in this in terms of the marketeering and profiteering from a surveillance engagement of a meeting in which there is an issue discussed where the information might be for sale to someone else. For example a government force might be interested in monitoring a meeting, but it is prohibited by law. Yet they could contract with a private group to obtain the information. The sales potential in terms of dollars is quite great.

Berlet: But wouldn't the sales potential be greater to a private firm, say in terms of monitoring an environmental group that wants to shut down an industry because it's polluting? Obviously the primary buyer for that information is the polluting industry itself, but not the only potential buyer, because competing industries might want that information to put in a bid for a waste-water treatment plant to clean up the site.

Scher: In comic book spy v. spy traditionally doesn't the info go to the highest bidder? What if there is a new construct where you could have information available to different bidders at different prices? The monitoring of groups would be lucrative from a security firms point of view, no matter what the meeting. It's likely that while not everything is being monitored now, it would be advantageous to upscale it and promote systems in which more overall monitoring is possible at a cheaper price so that even though there is legislation coming up that will limit CCTV surveillance, so that you will have to get a warrant in the same way you have to get one for audio monitoring, it's not clear that these laws will actually pass.

Berlet: Or if they are passed that they will be obeyed.

Scher: Right.

Berlet: Since one of the slimy undersides of the security profession is that there are always people willing to ignore the law for a price. There are individuals and firms that won't do that, but there are those that specialize in it, and what you are paying them for is to get the information using any means necessary, as long as they are not caught.

Scher: Correct.

Berlet: Then there is within the culture of surveillance persons who in order to earn their pay act as agents provocateurs or who consciously or unconsciously misreport what is going on to make their information more valuable. It's one thing to monitor and report on a meeting where people talk about picketing, it's another to report that people discussed blowing up the industry. Suddenly the value of the information provided where violence is discussed is much higher than the value of information about First Amendment activities. So there is a process whereby persons who sell information know their services are more valuable if they can report more threatening activity than if they merely report non-threatening activity. This is the process whereby infiltrators end up being the person in a meeting say, "I know where I could get a bomb" or suggest the most militant course of action where that tactic would be inappropriate to the group or the context of the protest. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in surveillance that infiltrators end up fueling the process by which people turn to more militant activity. Which isn't to say that in some cases militant activity is not an appropriate course, but that is a false outcome if it is prompted by the infiltrator, and may not reflect really where the group is politically or the most efficient and useful mechanism for protest is at that moment. Since the more aggressive the protest, the more valuable is the information provided.

Scher: I have only thought of that in terms of government infiltration, where they get you to do things you would not normally do just so they can arrest you.

Berlet: Yes, but it is also that the information itself has more value if it is more threatening to property or to public image. This is apparently what happened in the case of Fran Trutt where Perceptions International, a private firm, employed infiltrators who entered the animal rights group she was in, and convinced her to place a bomb, and in fact they provided the bomb, they drove her to the site, and when she had second thoughts while she was on the way, she called another person in the group who turned out to be an infiltrator that she saw as a friend, who encouraged her to go through with the action. So in fact the infiltrators generated the idea, arranged the accumulation of the bomb materials, provided the means of transportation, and gave emotional support for the action. Who is to say if they had not been there in the first place that this attempted bombing would ever have taken place?

Scher: Is it possible that there are private groups out there that have a motive other than profit, but have their own political agenda that would provide service such as infiltration?

Berlet: Oh sure, there are a number of these groups.


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